George Lucas Educational Foundation

AWOL Helps Troubled Students Make the Grade

A nonprofit group's summer and after-school programs support a Georgia school district's curriculum.
By Maya Payne Smart
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Dynamic Duo:

Tony and DaVena Jordan founded of AWOL (All Walks of Life) to provide a creative outlet for troubled kids.

Credit: Courtesy of DaVena Jordan

Tony Jordan had a troubled youth. His father was absent, and his overwhelmed mother sent him to live with relatives in South Carolina after his brother was gunned down in the streets of their Washington, DC, neighborhood. Jordan was kicked out of school after school and shuttled from relative to relative before an observant principal finally helped put him on a new path, he says, one that led to college instead of an untimely death, or jail.

The principal noticed that, despite the foul language and behavioral problems, Jordan earned A's and B's. So he helped place the eleventh grader in an alternative school that could chisel away his rough edges. Outside of the traditional academic setting, Jordan thrived. Teachers countered his profanity by challenging him to master the English language and become a public speaker. Each day, they offered him support and a reminder that if he applied himself, he could make a positive contribution to the world.

Seventeen years later, he has. In 2003, Jordan and his wife, DaVena, transformed a collaborative-arts group in Savannah, Georgia, into a nonprofit arts and technology center called AWOL (All Walks of Life). The center's mission is to create opportunities for troubled youth so they can improve their situation. The program promotes individual achievement while supporting the academic agenda in the Savannah-Chatham County Public Schools with 22-week project-learning programs in four subject areas: the performing arts, film, music production, and information technology.

Setting the Bar -- and a Good Example

Whatever a student's struggles -- a learning disability, disadvantaged circumstances, antisocial leanings -- AWOL, which accepts students ages 12-22, welcomes him or her with open arms. "I'm most proud of our ability to take a kid in the midst of personal issues and put them in a healthy, family-oriented environment where they feel loved," Jordan says.

Lesson in Design:

Deondria, a student from Alfred Ely Beach High School, learns to use Adobe Photoshop software with help from AWOL's Lloyd Harold.

Credit: Courtesy of DaVena Jordan

The organization gives each participant a "man-up plan" that outlines specific academic, behavior, employment, and personal-growth goals. From there, AWOL tailors the program to meet the individual student's needs. The results speak for themselves: About one in three students enter the program after tangles with the legal system, and 90 percent of those kids complete probation while in AWOL without new referrals to court. Roughly the same percentage of AWOL's 362 graduates have gone on to college, technical school, the military, or a job, says Jordan. The program's success has led to an annual increase in enrollment; this year, 152 young people are enrolled in its programs.

Savannah mayor Otis Johnson says AWOL fills a crucial need in a city in which, last year, 70 percent of students qualified for free or reduced-price lunch, a surrogate marker for poverty. "Our school population has a majority of its students coming from challenged social and environmental backgrounds, so they need much more than what the average public school can provide for them given the legal mandates of what must be taught in these schools," Johnson explains.

"We know by looking at the failure rates in kindergarten and first grade that many of these students are coming from social environments that haven't adequately prepared them for academic success," he adds. "They start experiencing failure at a young age, which does something negative to their self-image, and they begin to compensate with behavior that we don't understand, appreciate, or tolerate in the school system."

Johnson says that beyond the specific AWOL programs that reinforce positive behavior and allow young people to express their creativity, the Jordans also provide a model of marital stability that many of the young people don't see in their immediate families or in their neighborhoods. "They are a good example of what we hope these young people will evolve into," he says.

Connecting with Kids

April Hendrix, a high school special education teacher for Savannah-Chatham County Public Schools, is one of a growing number of educators and guidance counselors who refer students to AWOL. She's referred 12 students to AWOL following anger-management workshops that Jordan has led in her classroom. (Because of transportation issues, some kids did not ultimately participate.) Hendrix adds that budget restrictions and federal No Child Left Behind legislation prevent schools from starting their own AWOL-type programs.

She believes several factors contribute to AWOL's success: the staff's patience, its use of music, and its appreciation for kinesthetic learning. "They allow kids to ease into the program, instead of enforcing all of these rules," Hendrix says. "A lot of times, as a teacher, I see that students are overcorrected for things that teenagers naturally do." AWOL allows students to move around, be vocal, and socialize. "Young men especially require movement," Hendrix notes. "They may be able to memorize ten words for a few days, but if you get them moving while they are learning, they may very well learn them for life."

Making Beats:

Production students create their own hip-hop music.

Credit: Courtesy of DaVena Jordan

Hip-hop music, in particular, engages students, says Lloyd Harold, an art teacher at Pooler Elementary School and lead instructor for AWOL's sound-design program. He feels that art-related terms such as alliteration and hyperbole become more relevant when rooted in discussions about artists and styles that the kids like. Harold teaches everything from literary devices to conflict resolution while giving AWOL participants a chance to write, produce, record, copyright, and market a full-length studio album. Moreover, the program gets students out of their comfort zone and helps them develop social skills by having them work in teams that span grade levels.

"It's still an educational setting, but we deal with subjects that they are genuinely interested in," Harold notes. "Teachers are so worried about making sure kids test well that they can forget to get on a one-on-one level with the students and figure out what's going on in their lives and in their minds. Because AWOL is a creative outlet, it is easier for us to do this here than it is at school."

Roni Henderson, who runs AWOL's theater arts program, says AWOL's programming is a magnet for visual, tactile, and kinesthetic learners who struggle with rote learning. "I've taught high school English and seen those same kids navigate a public school environment," she says. "They don't fit in, and there's a high stress level. They come to us, and they can be themselves. We embrace all of their energy and integrate it into what we do."

For example, when introducing students to the civil rights movement, a typical classroom teacher might begin with a lecture or reading assignment. At AWOL, the instructors used police brutality as a point of departure for the discussion, because it is something that many of the students have witnessed. They then improvised a theater scene around excessive force and used that to spark discussion about how misunderstandings and fear can lead to the loss of innocent life. "We connected first, then put history to it," Henderson explains.

Involving the Community

Most AWOL programs are limited to fifteen students so that teachers can offer the individual attention and differentiated instruction its participants need. One exception is the performing-arts initiative, which stages an annual hip-hop history play. Any member of the community may participate in the production. The cast of more than fifty young people and adults learns theater etiquette, conflict resolution, and performance techniques while writing, rehearsing, and performing a Black History Month show.

They're a Hit:

Students (ages 5-25) in AWOL's hip-hop history production celebrate a sold-out performance with a group photo.

Credit: Courtesy of DaVena Jordan

Ethan, a tenth grader at Jenkins High School who is in the production, says that since he began playing Marcus Garvey -- an early-twentieth-century activist who inspired many U.S. civil rights leaders -- he has started to see the civil rights movement pop up everywhere: on television, in conversations, even in class. "I might hear something in school and already know about it," he explains. "We don't just put on a play. We actually learn information about it, not just our lines."

To get into character, Ethan peppered his history teacher with questions, searched the Web for details, and pored over videos to see how Garvey spoke and carried himself. The research makes the performance more authentic -- and often a history lesson -- for the 1,200 kids the school district brings to each of AWOL's three performances each year.

Ijtihad, a ninth grader at Jenkins High School, says the confidence he's gained from performing in the play spills over into all areas of his life. He says his grades have improved so much that other kids in class now ask him for help. "In eighth grade, I had mostly Bs and Cs," he adds. "Now, on my last report card, I had two As and two Bs, and I was really proud of that."

Maya Payne Smart is an education and business writer in Gainesville, Florida.

Comments (11) Sign in or register to comment Follow Subscribe to comments via RSS

Aaron Bishop's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

It is an awesome movement to see something that was grassroots become a power for good in our community. The Jordan's are people of intergrity and passion for the next generation. Tony is an authentic modern day hero for a people in need. Davena is the purest example of a work horse who know her purpose and mission in life. I stand in awe and expectation of what this powerhouse couple can do next.

Anne Roise's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Great story on AWOL! This program involves a successful collaboration among many partners in the Savannah area who contribute a great deal of resources to the program. However, Tony and DaVena really deserve credit for their energy, commitment and faith in the beauty, talent and resiliency of our youth. They employ an asset based-approach - - what is the healthy core of young people that can serve as a foundation for optimum personal development and useful contribution to the community, rather than focus on the pathologies that are ever present in the evening news.

Keep an eye on this program. The best is yet to come!!

Janie D. Phillips's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I had the distinct honor and pleasure of watching Tony's transformation at our alternative school. He is all that we expected him to become and more! We are so very proud of him and his societal contributions. He and DaVena have embraced the attributes of "extended family" and "community" that are so important to students who are searching for "safe harbors." Tony learned his lessons well. With his lovely wife, DaVena, and the assistance of AWOL, Tony is now making a difference in the lives of so many other students that our schools have failed. What more can you ask from one of your students? We love you, Tony!

Pierre     Jordan's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I am very proud of the choices he's made in his short life. The joy to save one of gods children.Davena and Tony we love yall and keep up the great work.

Anonymous (not verified)

It is a great pleasure to know Tony and Davena and to be able to witness the amazing work they do for youth from all walks of life. They both are vested in their community's most prized commodity and that the children. Keep up the good work and remember the world is your audience.

s. majewski's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Why isn't this public education with just a scattering of "traditional" schools around? I wish my own children could spend time with you and your staff. I'm so happy for the children (and their guardians)who work, learn, laugh, and cry with you. God Bless You ALL!

Angel Ratcliffe's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

AWOL recognized the detriment of a lack-luster public school system, came up with a creative solution, and implemented it immediately. If you see a problem... then fix it! I love this level of community activism they have, and are passing down to the students in the program. I know its hard work, but Tony, DaVena and their supporting cast make it look like a cake walk.

Barbara Weston's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I, too, had the distinct honor to teach, Tony. In a letter dated June 6, 1994, Tony wrote a to his former principal, "I felt the need to share something with you in the hope that more students like me can be saved. I would like to share my story of "Saving Grace."
In the letter he spoke about missing the boat for a number of years before receiving a life line from female teachers who loved him and taught him coping skills and ways to deal with his anger. He spoke of people who listened to him, believed in him, and taught him to believe in himself. He finally believed enough in himself to turn his life around.
We were proud then and are prouder now that Tony is giving back to his community and reaching back to pull troubled youth on board the life raft. He chose a wonderful help mate and together they are changing and touching lives.
He wrote, "My saving grace was FPS. I thank God every day that my rough times became smooth ones and that I found people who were willing to go the distance. The best example they set for me was working as a team..a family..and teaching me to do the same."
He has always acknowledged us as saving him; and we acknowledge his work of saving others. He is truly a "Saving Grace".
We love you, Tony. We KNEW YOU could do it!

Tara (Washington) Aikens's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Polo (Tony)I watched this program blossom into a rose garden of positive things in the Savannah community. I watch the segments on television from time to time and reflect on the journey of this idea that is now a phenomenon. I am proud that my classmate (SSU) has remained passionate and committed to this vision that has become a real-life "saving grace" for many of our children, brothers, sisters, cousins...future leaders of America. Like the "Starfish" poem we can save one at a time and ultimately change the face of the earth. Polo and DaVena keep up the great work...what a great legacy...remember there is power in the 803 Carolina).

Michael Hogan's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

As a Savannah resident and frequent customer at "The Bean", I was introduced to the work of AWOL. I also live in a neighborhood where there are no positive influences for the youth of our community...and it tears at my heart. Drug dealers and iresponsible (not their fault) and abusive parents are what they see daily.

Tony and DaVena, what you are doing is very much appreciated by those of us in the waning years of our lives. The bulk of the population of Savannah who look like me (old and white) are surely unaware of what you do for this community and especialy for the youth who are positively influenced by your labor of love (must be).

I'm sure that karma is good to you, and hope that it continues to be for the rest of your days.

Michael Hogan

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